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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Media

ISRAEL: Trying classic, digital and celebrity diplomacy

The Palestinian plan to ask the United Nations for statehood recognition has preoccupied Israel's leaders and news media for months, making "September" a code word for trouble ahead. Public officials have sounded dire warnings, each with a metaphor describing what awaits, including "tsunami" (Defense Minister Ehud Barak), "iceberg" (lawmaker Isaac Herzog) and "wall" (President Shimon Peres).

Last-minute efforts continue to reach a compromise that could keep Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from making what some commentators call a game-changing move, and spare the U.S. from resorting to exercising its veto power in the Security Council. One way or another other, "September" is here.

If classic diplomacy has limits, there's always Internet diplomacy. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is one of the country's most social-media-minded officials. This summer he posted on the Web a video titled "The Israel-Palestinian Conflict: The Truth About The Peace Process." It gained plenty of views but not so much traction. 

Now lay practitioners of hasbara, or public outreach, are joining the ranks of the digital diplomats. The latest video making the rounds to illustrate Israel's position is "Israel Wants Peace - Friend Request Pending" (above).  We're in a Facebook era, "like" it or not. Not everyone will agree with the video's message but most will understand its language.

While Netanyahu intends to present "Israel's truth" at the U.N., clever Internet presentations try to show Israel's softer face. And just for fun (and for art, for art!) mass-nude photographer Spencer Tunick showed some other parts over the weekend.

Joining the classic and the digital, there's "celebrity diplomacy" too.Americasvoices

The America's Voices in Israel program brings media and entertainment personalities to Israel for first-hand experiences, sight-seeing and briefings with government officials, to see for themselves and spread the word back home that Israel's a country, not just a conflict. Actor Miguel Ferrer, a member of the program's latest delegation, said he'd commit to offering positive messages on behalf of the people of Israel. "Twilight" star Kellan Lutz, visiting for the second time, noted that people are "not really informed" about Israel.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Video: "Israel Wants Peace- Friend Request Pending." Credit: YouTube

Photo: Kellan Lutz, left, Miguel Ferrer, Carolina La O and Didier Hernendez visiting Jerusalem. Credit: Yissachar Ruas

SYRIA: Anti-government activist describes life in Baniyas

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Ahmad, a Syrian university student and pro-democracy demonstrator, is optimistic that the regime of President Bashar Assad cannot sustain its ferocious crackdown on protesters for much longer.

“Perhaps one or two months,” he told Babylon & Beyond in an interview in neighboring Lebanon, where he recently arrived with the help of smugglers. “The international sanctions are hitting and the internal situation is very bad. In my area and in other places people are not paying their electricity and water bills anymore -- let alone taxes -- because they started to despise the regime. People are only buying food and necessities."

Ahmad, who did not want to give his last name, is from Baniyas, the Syrian coastal city that became a protest hub before coming under siege by the Syrian army and security forces in May. Large protests haven't been reported there since.

Ahmad says he participated in protests from the start and became involved in a Syrian activist group that documents the uprising against Assad. He often spoke to Arab and international media, including the Los Angeles Times, about the situation on the ground during the upheavals. It didn't take long before his name ended up on the Syrian authorities’ black list of activists.

"They started listening to my phone from the beginning. My family had to flee the city and I haven’t seen them in six months. I can’t talk to them. I have a friend in Damascus whom I spoke to once on the phone. They took him and held him for two months."

Before the army and security forces started cracking down on demonstrators months ago, Ahmad said,  protesters did not call for the downfall of the regime. In the first week, protesters complained about sporadic and expensive electricity and wanted a corrupt local government official fired, he said. Then demonstrators called for prisoners to be freed.

The violence had not begun yet but security forces were trying to impose an economic siege as protests gained strength in Baniyas; the forces banned the entrance of various goods and necessities into the city, according to Ahmad's account. Then phones and electricity were cut late one night, prompting residents to fear that something bad was coming.

Ahmad recalls groups of people standing in the city streets that night, nervously talking to each other.

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LIBYA: Hala Misrati, state TV host, seems held by rebels [Video]

 

Libyan state television talk show host Hala Misrati, a combative Moammar Kadafi loyalist, appeared to be in the custody of rebel forces in a video posted online.

The video could not be independently verified.

"This video shows proof that Hala Misrati, a former Libyan State TV talk show host, has been found and captured by Libyan Freedom Forces," the caption says. "She will stand trial soon, inshallah [God willing], as will every other person who stood by Kadafi's side."

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LIBYA: Italian journalists kidnapped by Kadafi forces

Four Italian journalists traveling in Libya were kidnapped Wednesday by forces loyal to Moammar Kadafi, the BBC reported.

The journalists worked for Italian newspapers Corriere della Sera, La Stampa and Avvenire, a spokesman for the Italian foreign ministry told Reuters.

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WEST BANK: Palestinian officials succeed in taking TV political satire off the air

The worst fears of Imad Farajin, Palestinian actor and author of political satire and TV comedy show "Watan Ala Watar" ("Country on a String"), came true  Wednesday when the Palestinian Authority’s attorney general, Ahmad Mughani, ordered Palestine TV to stop broadcasting the locally produced show.

The show, aired nightly on Palestine TV, started broadcasting on the first day of the Muslim fast month of Ramadan. After a seemingly successful first year, the authors and producers of the short show decided to go for a second season.

However, its harsh and sarcastic criticism of Palestinian officials has upset them all; some decided to sue the show and Palestine TV and others put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to pull if off the air.

After 16 episodes, the attorney general decide to take action and issued an order shutting down the show, claiming it had offensive language and insulted senior officials.

Whether that was within his authority remains to be decided, but the decision was made and Palestine TV pulled the plug on the show.

“Freedom of opinion is guaranteed in the Palestinian law,” said Farajin, who saw the decision coming. “What the attorney general did was an outrageous infringement on freedom of opinion,” he said.

Farajin said he will not take the decision lightly, but will turn it into a public issue. He said he will go to court to challenge the attorney general’s decision, which he said came without even hearing their point of view.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, the official in charge of Palestine TV, grudgingly accepted the attorney general’s decision and immediately pulled the show off the air. He also questioned the legality of Mughani’s ruling.

“We are going to challenge that decision because if it was allowed to hold, it will set a dangerous precedent that could also affect other works, and there are signs this might happen,” he said.

He expressed concern that the attorney general, who appointed himself in charge of artistic works, may take action in the future against any TV show, or play or painting, or a song or even a newspaper article.

“If the attorney general believes he now has the power to stop any artistic or creative work, we will be then facing a major catastrophe that will affect all freedoms,” said Abed Rabbo.

The attorney general defended his decision. “The 1960 criminal law (a Jordanian law) gives the attorney general the right to take proper legal action under the article that talks about slander against the authority,” said Mughani.

“We believe in freedoms and we defend it,” he added. “But this program included obscene language that touched esteemed and respected symbols of the Palestinian people.”

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

IRAN: Tehran names street for late U.S. activist Rachel Corrie

Pg-27-rachel-corrie_335079tIran has decided to name a street in honor of Rachel Corrie, an American pro-Palestinian activist who was killed while protesting against the demolition of Palestinian homes in the Gaza strip eight years ago. It's the first time since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979 that an Iranian street has been named after an American.

On Thursday, an article published in the Iranian newspaper Hamshari, a daily close to the Tehran city council and the mayor of the capital, said the council will name a street in Tehran after Corrie, a 23-year old Olympia, Wash., native who was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer in 2003 when she tried to prevent the Israeli Defense Forces from tearing down a Palestinian home.

The report said the street sign would be put up in central Tehran, but it was not immediately clear when that would happen. 

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WEST BANK: Not everyone's laughing at Palestinian TV comedy

At a time when revolts in Arab nations are gradually taking their toll on the leaders of those countries, Palestinian officials seem worried that too much criticism of their performance may eventually lead them to a fate similar to their Arab brothers.

At least that's what one comedian-actor-writer believes.

Imad Faragin last year launched a political-social satirical TV show called "Watan ala Watar" ("Country on a String"). The short series, which was sponsored and aired daily on state-owned Palestine TV during last year's fast month of Ramadan, was a hit mainly because of its harsh and funny criticism of Palestinian political, social and civil society leaders and organizations.

Happy with the positive reviews he got, Faragin, the writer and main actor of the show, decided to do it again for this year's Ramadan. Following the same style, he hit hard in a comical and sarcastic manner at more or less the same officials and groups. However, this time the reaction was different.

Already, two groups have filed lawsuits against "Watan ala Watar" and Palestine TV, claiming the show has harmed their reputation. The police and the doctors groups filed the suits in Palestinian courts, demanding compensation and a stop to the show. In the show, police were portrayed as getting drunk from smelling the breath of a drunk person, and doctors were portrayed as not caring about the life of their patient.

"Officials are more tense this year than before," Faragin said. "I imagine the reason is because of the Arab Spring. They are afraid that too much criticism may lead them to the same fate as other Arab officials."

Faragin said he is worried that the negative reaction from officials may force cancellation of the show.

"I did not receive any personal threats, but there definitely was huge pressure directed mainly at me," he said. "This is proof to me that the show had an impact, and this is why officials seem concerned by its message."

He said the show reflects the feelings of the people and expresses their views on various social and political ills. He said he is not going to quit producing the show, no matter what happens. He added that he believes in freedom of expression and that if he has to go to court, he'll go alone and take with him only a camera to record the hearing.

He also said that the controversy will definitely give him material for future shows.

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

IRAN: Tehran youths' plan to cool off lands them in hot water

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They were just looking to cool off and have a little fun in the middle of Tehran's scorching-hot summer.

Instead, a group of young Iranians got all tangled up with authorities in the Islamic Republic and paraded on Iranian state television for participating in a mass public water pistol fight in a Tehran park, Iranian media reports say.

On Wednesday night, state channel broadcast images of some youth who were arrested at the event on July 29, the Iranian daily Assre-Iran reported.

They said in the program that they had chatted with each other on Facebook and decided to meet at the park -- ironically named Tehran's Water and Fire park -- at that date with water guns, added the report.

The event reportedly attracted about 800 people through a Facebook invitation.

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ISRAEL: Protest tents launch Israel's summer of discontent

Two weeks into Israel's housing protest, demonstrations are sweeping the country. More than 150,000 people took part in protests nationwide calling for socioeconomic change and demanding "social justice." And what started with the odd tent has become the summer of Israeli discontent.

Young Israelis feel they are victims of the country's strong economy and decades of security-heavy priorities. The Israeli economy boomed, but its young middle class has bombed, caving under price hikes, taxation and increasingly privatized public services such as health, education and child care. The leadership admits there are problems but say protesters' complaints are exaggerated.

The economic trend was no accident, protesters say, but a calculated economic ideology coupled with conservative politics. Decentralizing Israel's economy was necessary but privatization has run amok, critics say, with the government outsourcing its commitments to the majority of its citizens, who now demand government reaffirm its vows to the greater public.

Israel1 "Re-vo-lu-tion!" cries bounced off walls in Tel-Aviv, Beersheva, Haifa and other towns Saturday night. 

So here's a Revolution 101, an incomplete dictionary to the cousin of the Arab Spring: the Israeli Summer. Naturally, there are millions of possible definitions.

A is for Arabs. It took some time, but Arab citizens of Israel joined the protests. Chronic under-budgeting has left many in the lower rungs of the country's socioeconomic ladder with more than half below the poverty line and a shortage of 60,000 housing units in the sector comprising 20% of Israeli society. A rare opportunity to join a social cause striving to be inclusive, not exclusive.

B is for Babies. Baby products and child care are too expensive, keeping women from professional development and young families in constant debt. Thousands marched with strollers and baby carriages last week, demanding, among other things, work schedules that are better synchronized with child-care calendars so parents can actually work.

C is for Competition. There is none, protesters say, that's why prices are high. 80% of the nation's economy is controlled by a few dozen powerful family empires who prevent real competition.

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LEBANON: Court releases names and pictures of Hariri's alleged killers

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 The United Nations-backed international tribunal set up to bring to justice those responsible for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and others on Friday published the identities, photographs, and background information of four suspects named in the indictment, issued on June 28.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon splashed photographs and detailed information on its website about the personal history of the four suspects -- identified as Salim Jamil Ayyash, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Assad Hassan Sabra.

The men range in age from 36 to 50. The published information includes the names of their parents, their passport and social security numbers, and their last known addresses.

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ISRAEL: Larry David's Palestinian chicken peace plan

So the peace process is in a sorry state, pushing the Palestinians to seek statehood recognition from the United Nations and Israel scurrying around the world to prevent the move or at least detract from its significance.

Meanwhile, efforts to renew negotiations are still on, and both sides say they are willing, so long as they agree on a few ground rules. The latest efforts made by the Mideast Quartet -- representing Russia, the United States, European Union and United Nations -- concentrated on reaching a formula that would incorporate the principles listed by President Obama in his Middle East speech in May.

Their attempt to jump-start the talks failed, according to media reports, due to disagreement over Israel's demand that Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state. This report quoted a Western diplomat, who said the goal was to give each side something it held important. "The Palestinians were supposed to get 1967 borders with land swaps and the Israelis wanted to receive in return the recognition of Israel as the Jewish homeland," but there was no agreement on the matter, the diplomat said.

The dread digits 1-9-6-7 were in the eye of the storm in the days between the policy speeches delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama in the U.S. in May. Israel objects to this baseline for security reasons, arguing it is indefensible. However, "1967 borders with land swaps" also- maybe mostly-means settlements, as in which ones Israel removes and how much land it swaps in return for those it seeks to annex.  And Israel's demand for recognition as the Jewish homeland has its logic in obviating the Palestinian demand of the Right of Return, while some see this relatively new demand as another monkey wrench in the peace process machinery.

But where some see obstacles, others see opportunity.

The latest episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has Larry David in the world's best chicken place, a Palestinian restaurant named Al-Abbas, coincidentally or not calling to mind the name of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Marveling over the best chicken they've ever eaten, David and his friend have a brainstorm. "You know what? They should send this chicken over to Israel. Yeah, for the peace process. They'd take down all those settlements in the morning," they say.

Surveying the  "Freedom for Palestine" posters and figuring no Jew had or ever would set foot there, the two figure it's the perfect place for Jewish people to cheat on their spouses, as they'd never be caught in the Palestinian restaurant. Eyeing a Palestinian woman, a frequent patron, David puts the recognition-of-Israel conundrum plaguing the peace process to "good" argument. "You're always attracted to someone who doesn't want you, right? Well, here you have someone who not only doesn't want you but doesn't even acknowledge your right to exist.... That's a turn-on," he says.

(OK, so most Palestinians do recognize Israel's right to exist; it's the Jewish homeland bit they have issue with. But it's still funny.)

The episode gets better -- or worse -- depending on one's politics and sense of humor.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Video: "'Curb Your Enthusiasm' -- Palestinian Chicken Place" Season 8, Episode 3. Via YouTube.

ISRAEL: Arabic radio station campaigns against killing of women

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A young woman turns up dead. Her husband is held for a few days, then released. Police have no other suspects. Murmurs of "family honor" are heard -- and the news races on, reluctant to deal with a painful issue: the killing of women in Arab society.

Until now.

A few years ago, Duah Fares was within reach of a dream as a finalist in a local beauty pageant. Not everyone was proud of the groundbreaking model who changed her name to the less ethnically conspicuous "Angelina." As the swimsuit stage of the competition neared, displeasure over the break from tradition became heavy pressure and Fares withdrew from the competition when it became clear that her life was in danger.

Her younger sister, Jamila, was also an aspiring beauty pageant contestant; she too changed her name to the more cosmopolitan "Maya" before taking a safer path of marriage and a job in a shop. It wasn't safer. Maya, 21, is the last statistic in a grim tally.

Most of the 35 women murdered in Israel since the beginning of 2010 were killed by close relatives. Sixteen of them were Arab women, sadly over-represented given that their community makes up 20% of Israeli society.

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